Commemorating The San Diego Free Speech Fights Centennial

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By: Adam Burkhart •

To commemorate the centennial of the events of the San Diego Free Speech Fights, unions and activists participated at a demonstration at the intersection of 5th and E Streets on Wednesday, February 8.

It was at this same location on that very same night, one hundred years before, that members of the I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World) gathered in protest against a city ordinance which banned public speaking in the area that is now the Gaslamp Quarter of downtown San Diego. As a result of that ordinance, there was a high price to pay for public speaking. The response to the proclamations of the I.W.W. that night was an onslaught of waiting police which resulted in 41 arrests (Shanks). [1] The scene of the commemoration was not so heated, neither was the turnout close to that of the event that inspired it, but the nature of the event, whether it was a celebration of a liberty once fought for and still possessed, or was in reality still another episode in the fight for free speech, was unclear.

To resist attempts at characterizing it as one or the other, it is safer and more accurate to say it was a bit of both.

The festivities were officially set to begin at 6 o’clock, but a rally on the subject of free speech is a surefire way to attract a crowd of political dissidents with a message, and this one was no exception. The outcry over present day issues was supplied by members of San Diego Occupy, the city’s chapter of the Occupy Wall Street movement. I arrived at the intersection of 5th and E around five o’clock and soon learned that the occupiers had crashed the gates so to speak, not that the AFT or any of the other unaffiliated unions minded. Most had not yet arrived.

Positioned at each corner of the intersection, occupiers took turns standing atop the soapboxes crafted for the event by local trade unions, declaiming to small numbers of passersby about the unconstitutionality of the National Defense Authorization Act and the injustice of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Citizen’s United v. Federal Election Commission, which grants corporations unrestricted freedom to use money as political speech. A couple of police stood idly by, watching the proceedings and appearing rather bemused and uninterested as they leant against the rails of corner restaurants. The patrons of said restaurants who sat on the patio tried hard to ignore the constant vociferation, and occasionally cast annoyed sidelong glances at the corner pulpits. The clamor only mounted as the hour drew nearer to six, and the din that normally pours from the restaurants along 5th Avenue was for once noticeably outdone by what was happening on the street.

The numbers of those participating in the demonstration began to swell as groups from different unions showed up. Unions present were the AFT, Teamsters, UFCW, Building Trades, Boiler Trades, Postal Carriers and Machinists. A large number of orange shirts bearing the words “Liuna Laborers” debarked from a chartered bus and took over an entire corner of the intersection. President of the Union Bobby Pineda expressed the importance of demonstrations of this kind:

“This is very important” he said, referring to the demonstration and the need to protect free speech. When asked if his union was sympathetic to the Occupy movement he responded that they were.  Occupy has also taken actions in solidarity with unions he commented, notably the December west coast port shutdown that took place in cities along theCaliforniacoast.

As we spoke a chant began spontaneously and was accompanied by a sudden human movement. “Off of the sidewalk, into the street!” the crowd echoed as anyone caught on the sidewalk at that moment was swept into the center of the intersection where a single soapbox was prepared.

The first speaker to take the stage was San Diego Labor Council Head Lorena Gonzales, addressing the crowd and balanced somewhat precariously in heels from atop the soapbox, she accepted support from a union member in the shape of a ready shoulder to lean on. In her speech Gonzales stressed the need to “continue to reclaim public space” and denounced “right wing newspaper owners and the city council that they control,” garnering much applause. She was also outspokenly critical of the California Restaurant Association for being resistant to union labor, and made a comparison of the modern food services worker with those of one hundred years ago. This provoked calls of “Sound familiar?” from the crowd, which became a motif for the rest of the night.

Another notable speaker was Rainey Reitman, the great-granddaughter of Ben Reitman, famous anarchist and birth control advocate who figured briefly in the San Diego Free Speech Fights but was brutalized, tarred and feathered and forced to escape toLos Angelesby vigilantes almost as soon as he stepped off the train. Rainey Reitman’s presence at the commemoration was a small but symbolic statement for the history of free speech. But Reitman’s connection to this cause extends beyond mere familial bonds: she is currently the activism director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that takes the fight for speech and privacy rights off of the soapbox and into the digital realm of the internet and other social media.

For about an hour the speeches and planned music by a guitar and banjo duo continued without a hitch, at the end of which time police announced the street was to be reopened and began ordering people to return to the sidewalk. Many in the crowd were tacitly resistant, with a few murmuring dissent at the police order. An event for free speech seemed incompatible with the idea of quitting at the first command to disperse. Nevertheless the numbers of demonstrators began to thin gradually and everyone was pushed, crowded together onto the barely accommodating sidewalk. One individual was perhaps too reluctant to comply with police, as we learned when, flanked by five police officers, he was carted away to a police cruiser. Later this individual was partially identified as Damien, a member of San Diego Occupy serving on their Labor Solidarity Committee.

Soon most of the crowd had disappeared, the only ones left in any numbers being the occupiers who had shown up earliest. Already crammed together on the sidewalk, the police began ordering that they clear a path for pedestrians. What had moments before seemed a good natured communal event started to look like a public nuisance. Most of the labor force had departed, and I could not search out a single orange shirt.

Reluctant to leave, yet realizing the tide had turned, the occupiers began to make the walk to the civic center where they hold their general assembly every night at seven, although it got started a little later this night.

Demonstrators did not fight a decisive fight for free speech on the 8th. The occupiers’ messages about corporate greed and class inequality failed to attract notice once the excitement of the celebration waned and the planned festivities drew to a close. Silenced for the moment, the occupiers withdrew, but perhaps the century old cries of the free speech fighters echoed loudest in the ears of the ones who feel the need to continue the fight the strongest.


[1] Shanks, Rosalie. “The I.W.W Free Speech Movement: San Diego, 1912.” Ed. James E. Moss. The San Diego Historical Society Quarterly, Winter 1973, Vol. 19, Number 1. Accessed on sandiegohistorycenter.org.  21 February 2012. http://www.sandiegohistory.org/journal/73winter/speech.htm

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